In the Auld Irishtown trilogy, Dinny Meehan is the leader of the White Hand Gang. Muscular, green-stoned eyes, thick, long brown hair on top, shaved on the sides and back and a commanding presence, Meehan becomes the father to Liam Garrity in the story, and so much more. There have been references to Meehan’s meteoric, even destined rise to leadership in Irishtown and his being a figure of metaphor in the trilogy.
(Listen to: The Story of Irishtown)
By the time Liam Garrity, narrator of the books, arrives in 1915, Meehan has been leader of the gang for two years. Garrity, being very inquisitive and impressed with Meehan’s power over others, asks and learns about Meehan’s past primarily from the old-timer Beat McGarry.
(To read about the real-life Dennis L. “Dinny” Meehan, you can go here. However, having done my own in-depth research, there are mistakes on wikipedia)
There is not much known about Meehan’s family other than his father arrived in New York as a child during Black ’47, the worst year of the famine. Meehan’s wife Sadie tells Garrity that the Meehans also came from County Clare, as did Garrity.
In passing references that have yet to be completely explained:
1) Meehan’s uncle was “Red Shay” Meehan, leader of a 19th Century Manhattan gang called The Potashes
2) His mother, two brothers, two sisters and uncle all die in a short time period under sketchy circumstances in Greenwich Village
3) His father is deathly ill and must leave Greenwich Village as Dinny himself is
under threat of murder.
4) Tanner Smith helps them cross the East River into Irishtown in Brooklyn
In the year 1900, his father passes away and the White Hand Gang’s first leader in Irishtown, Coohoo Cosgrave, helps bury him so that he isn’t left in a “pauper’s grave.”
In a chapter in Exile on Bridge Street called Save Our Souls, which is from the perspective of Darby Leighton, it is explained that Dinny, Cosgrave, the Leighton brothers and McGowan all lived under a pier in Brooklyn. Cosgrave apparently goes crazy and keeps screaming “My soul is pure, a cloud in a mountain shroud” and commits suicide.
We don’t learn much about Meehan from the years 1901-1911, but from The Gas Drip Bard, Irishtown’s old shanachie (Irish storyteller), we learn that in 1912 Meehan and his best friend McGowan, a very young Vincent Maher and Pickles Leighton (member of Bill Lovett’s Jay Street Gang) all kill Christie Maroney in a saloon on Sands Street between the bridges. Maroney was a gold-toothed pimp who made other gangs pay tribute to him, as well as being closely associated with police, prostitution, a shylock and allowing the Italian Black Hand into Irishtown.
Watch a video trailer of Exile on Bridge Street:
In The Gas Drip Bard’s telling, a sensational trial occurs in 1913. Meehan is described by his lawyer Dead Reilly as “deaf and dumb. Like he wasn’t even there,” which allows the jury to believe that he was not the gang’s leader. Meehan, McGowan and Maher are set free, while Pickles Leighton takes the fall and is sent to Sing Sing.
Afterward, Meehan organizes all of the gangs to work under his umbrella gang, The White Hand and names his dockbosses, advisors and enforcers.
Meehan’s personality appears to be a key to some deeper story within the trilogy, however. He is regularly described as an “artificer,” “creator,” and “fashioner.” He also seems to know what is going to happen, as he never shows surprise or wonder.
In one scene, he is described as an “ascetic.” Sitting at his desk above The Dock Loaders with the open iron-shutters behind him revealing the Manhattan skyline with his eyes closed, he is not sleeping but “simply enough. Sits. Becoming unity. Ceasing to exist.”
No matter what though, Meehan is always in control and always seems to know when to attack and when to compromise. Everyone in the gang treats him with great respect, dignity and fear.
Except Bill Lovett.
Old timers and storytellers from Irishtown speak of Meehan as a savior of the old ways and that the killing of Maroney was of great symbolism. Instead of modernizing under Meehan’s rule, the gang again closed off Irishtown’s borders from outsiders, again refused Anglo-American law in the Irish waterfront territories and consolidated power in honor of the original Irish immigrant settlers in remembrance of their struggle as children of The Great Hunger and, maybe most importantly, to stay close to their Irish roots and culture.
But to keep outsiders away, Meehan finds his people against the wall (or, against the water, literally). The law wants to reign them in, Italians want the lucrative port terminals of North Brooklyn, the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) demand their loyalty and million-dollar industrial businesses want them exterminated altogether. On top of it all, the violent Bill Lovett seeks to take power from within.